Originally published by usa Today
ON THE U.S.-MEXICO BORDER, NEAR MCALLEN, Texas – After losing his wife and infant daughter on the perilous journey from Guatemala to the U.S.-Mexico border, Lester Morales thought he’d be safe when he got to U.S. soil.
Then he got more bad news: His 3-year-old son, José Fernando, would likely be temporarily taken away from him as well as the result of a new U.S. policy.
“I didn’t know,” Morales said Tuesday after crossing the Rio Grande to enter the U.S. “We left so that my family could be safe. Not this.”
Hundreds of immigrant parents like Morales are crossing into the U.S. without proper authorization unaware that the process to seek asylum now also includes temporary loss of their child.
Last month, the Trump administration enacted its "zero tolerance” policy, which entails charging nearly everyone crossing the border without authorization with a federal misdemeanor. By doing so, under law, children entering the USA alongside adults fall under the Office of Refugee Resettlement's care while those criminal cases are pursued.
Administration officials, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, have said the practice of separating parents from children under the new policy should act as a deterrent for other immigrants considering entering the U.S. without authorization.
But many recently-arrived immigrants said they didn't know about the practice. Kelvin Martinez, 32, of Honduras, huddled in the shade of an overpass on Tuesday near Granjero, Texas, with son Elgado, 5. As Border Patrol agents took his information, Martinez said he had been on the road for 18 days in order to reach the U.S. and find a better life for himself and his son.
Taking Elgado from him would be inhumane, he said. "Not even animals leave their young alone," Martinez said. "We’re all humans. No one would like to be separated from their children."
Agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection pick up the immigrants as they cross into the U.S. then bus them to a nearby processing center. That's where parents are typically separated from their kids while the adults face federal misdemeanor charges for entering the U.S. improperly.
Rochelle Garza, a Brownsville attorney who represents immigrant families and unaccompanied minors, said the vast majority of families she's talked to since the policy went into effect had no idea they were about to be separated, creating a traumatic situation for the children and parents.
"The parents are completely unwaware before coming," Garza said. "It's not something a lot of people seeking asylum expect to happen to them. It's very traumitizing for the kids and the parents to have that happen."
Analisa Lopez, 20, said she knew U.S. officials were separating children from parents, but she came anyway to escape an ex-husband who was threatening to kill her in her native Honduras. She made the 1,400-mile journey through Guatemala and Mexico to reach the U.S. border with her 3-year-old son, Jorge.
She would be devastated if they took Jorge away, Lopez said shortly after crossing the Rio Grande to enter the U.S. But the alternative -- returning to Honduras -- would mean certain death at the hands of her ex-husband, she said.
Lopez said she convinced the local police to jail him for a few days, just long enough for her to escape the country. If she went back, he'd hunt her down, she said. "He's psychotic. He stalked me," Lopez said. "I had to leave."
Humberto Umul, 35, left Guatemala several weeks ago with his son, Juan Carlos, 16, hoping to start a new life near an aunt in New York. As he tromped down a muddied dirt road on Tuesday near the Rio Grande with his son, he was shocked to hear that he'd soon be separated from Juan Carlos.
Umul fled Guatemala shortly after the June 3 eruption of Volcán de Fuego there. The eruption had covered his hometown in the Chimaltenango region in ash and made it harder to find work or even enough food for his family, he said.
Losing his son was the last thing he expected, Umul said.
"We came here to fight for our children, to earn and to teach them how to work," he said. "It's not right that they do this."
Morales, the immigrant from Guatemala, said he left his home country after getting repeated death threats from organized crime gangs. While in Mexico, the group he was traveling with suddenly split up and he hadn't seen his wife and 1-year-old daughter in more than a week.
His eyes grew red with tears as he recounted losing touch with them. He won't know what to do if they take his son away, too, Morales said.
“He’s all I have left," he said.